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The Delta: Growing in the Food Desert

Black churches in the Delta are preaching the gospel of gardening. It could be their salvation.

Turnips as big as softballs grow in the Samuel Chapel United Methodist Church Garden/Photo by Jared Burleson
Turnips as big as softballs grow in the Samuel Chapel United Methodist Church Garden/Photo by Jared Burleson

A quiet revolution is growing in the Delta. In front yards, back yards, empty fields, abandoned lots, grade schools and churches, gardens are sprouting like wildflowers in the spring.

Weary of watching friends die from the twin epidemics of obesity and diabetes, diseases fed largely by bad diets, a survival instinct has kicked in. People are growing their own fresh food.

If this burgeoning movement succeeds, it could help reverse deadly trends in the Delta. For years, as countless little Delta towns have dried up, major grocery stores have disappeared and people began buying food from the only dependable source within miles – convenience stores selling big sodas, chips and other fatty, salty foods. Vast areas of the Delta are considered “food deserts,” places where it’s nearly impossible to get healthy food.

Things were not always this bad. Aerial photos of the 1950s Delta hanging in the Bank of Bolivar County in Shelby show a Delta with gardens behind or beside nearly every home, especially in the African American community.

“Gardens were … a main source of calories for people before the middle of the 20th century,” said Harvard researcher and Delta Fellow Nate Rosenberg.

Over time, across America, small family gardens all but disappeared as new generations showed little interest in the time and effort needed to till, plant, tend and harvest a garden.
After the arrival of mechanized and industrial farming in the Delta, rural family gardens were eventually replaced by large company farms that ran smaller farms out of business and blanketed the area with cash crops. What was then a sign of progress was actually a breakdown in the balance of the agricultural system.

“If we want to have a healthy economy and a healthy food system, we are going to have to go in the reverse direction,” Rosenberg said. The rich Delta soil will have to produce food once again.

A Holy Cause

Today, you do not need to look far to spot signs of the gardening revolution springing from the soil.

John Upton works hard to keep the church's garden constantly producing fresh produce./Photo by Jared Burleson
John Upton works hard to keep the church’s garden constantly producing fresh produce./Photo by Jared Burleson

In tiny Itta Bena (pop. 2,049), Ruthie Robinson helps lead a small army against decades of unhealthy habits.As a nurse at Greenwood Leflore Hospital, she sees daily the need to fight obesity, diabetes and other diet-related diseases.

We have a means to help, so it’s our charge to do what we can do to make sure that Itta Bena is as healthy as we can be,” she said.

On a recent Saturday, the halls of Samuel Chapel United Methodist Church were filled with people being screened for high blood pressure, diabetes and other health problems. Robinson’s church hosts similar meetings every month. Besides these meetings, the church and Itta Bena’s chapter of Communities for All Ages keep the city engaged with an award-winning garden, special health programs and healthy eating classes.

The church sees this fight as a holy cause. “We minister to the whole person: physically, mentally, and emotionally,” said Robinson. “Once you feel better physically, you can feel better spiritually.”

On a blustery March day, master gardener John Upton, a big man with a soft voice, strode into the church’s fallow field and pointed to what looked like weeds. Beneath the top of the greens, he yanked a turnip the size of a softball out of the cool, black earth. Down the row, he pulled up another turnip nearly the same size. “These will work,” he said with a grin. Even in the off season before spring planting, the garden provides.

That bounty of sweet potatoes, tomatoes, broccoli, peppers, peas, cucumbers, beans, watermelons, okra and collards is important to Itta Bena, a community with no grocery store. People have to drive miles to find healthier food to feed their families. Those who cannot travel rely on convenience stores for fatty, sodium-rich and processed food.

“It’s unfortunate that we do not have one,” said Thelma Collins, Itta Bena’s mayor and a Samuel Chapel member. “A grocery store makes all the difference.”

Upton works hard to keep the garden constantly producing fresh produce. In keeping with scripture, anyone in the community who asks shall receive as much fresh produce as Upton and the rest of the garden team can provide. “If you can get healthy food, then you’re going to be more likely to eat healthy food,” said Upton.

Itta Bena Mayor Thelma Collins said the church is trying to change people's attitudes about eating healthy./Photo by Phillip Waller
Itta Bena Mayor Thelma Collins said the church is trying to change people’s attitudes about eating healthy./Photo by Phillip Waller

The Itta Bena garden was recognized as one of the top three community gardens in the region by Delta Fresh Foods, an organization that works to promote farm- fresh food in the Delta. Upton appreciates the recognition, but he says that it is more important to involve the community.

“That really was the reason we started the church’s community garden. It was to get people back to the basics of eating healthy food and working in the garden,” Upton said.

Even with their progress, the people of Samuel Chapel know they are fighting an uphill battle. “When you take on bad habits, it’s hard to get rid of them,” said Upton.

Collins agrees. “It’s easier to put something in a microwave than it is to go out into the garden and pick, wash, and then cook it,” she said.

The key to their approach is a focus on small steps. Anyone can have a garden, Robinson says. “Wherever you are, take a

pot and start from there,” she said. She says a flower pot garden is all some people can manage, but for others, it may be a test bed for a larger project.

Samuel Chapel’s fight is a battle against a culture of bad decisions. As Collins said, “Changing a lifestyle is tough.”

The Good Health Preacher

Sporting horn-rimmed glasses, slim dark- wash jeans, and a bright blue, yellow and red flannel shirt completed by a drab green zippered jacket, Ryan Betz could be dressed for a blustery day in any city.

On this bright spring day though, Betz is wielding a pair of hedge clippers and a hoe, pruning back overgrown bushes and hacking away at weeds in the small town of Mound Bayou. His mission is to rid the garden at the I.T. Montgomery Elementary School of weeds and banish the last shreds of neglect from the planters by installing brand-new retaining walls.

Betz, who has 36 churches tending gardens in the Delta, is also the farm to school coordinator for Delta Fresh Foods, an organization that works to put fresh foods in reach of every Delta resident. His work at the elementary school is part of a larger project to incorporate gardening into the school curriculum and connect the school cafeteria with local growers who could provide fresh fruits and vegetables to the children.

Betz says that it is all about getting kids started early with gardening and making it a big part of their lives. “(Gardening) has got to be ingrained in how people operate,” he said. “You have to make it a habit.”

Screen Shot 2013-12-12 at 4.14.10 PM

Nate Rosenberg says programs like Betz’s help get kids excited about modern, sustainable farming — something most kids just do not understand. “Right now it requires a lot of creative ingenuity (to farm) and it’s not a type of farming that students or young adults are exposed to here,” said Rosenberg. “It’s a matter of exposing students to it … and then dealing with their interest in it.”

Betz does not stop with the kids though. As farm to school coordinator, he works to educate food service directors and farmers on the best ways to bring farm fresh fruits and vegetables to school cafeterias in the Delta. He introduces farmers to support systems and resources they need to sell to schools. “We’re connecting the dots,” he said.

One of those dots is a community center five miles up the road from Mound Bayou in the little town of Shelby. Dorothy Scarbrough, the founder and director
of Mississippians Engaged in Greener Agriculture, calls this place home. Here, from a base of seven bright blue, weathered and worn classroom trailers, Scarbrough is battling her town’s bad health one garden at a time. The former classroom trailers host pupils of a new sort — people who want to learn how to garden and eat right.

For years as an emergency room and intensive care nurse at the Bolivar County Hospital in Cleveland, Scarbrough saw daily evidence of the dangers of obesity.

On her own, Scarbrough planted fruit trees at all of her rental properties for residents to enjoy. “(We want) them to be able to go out in the yard and get fresh fruits without having to go to a grocery store to get them,” she said.

Scarbrough did not stop there. She pushed outward to the wider community to found MEGA. Scarbrough has managed to squeeze a food pantry, fitness room, community center, and garden into the former pre-school trailers. Soon, she will add a commercial kitchen to teach cooking and canning classes to growers who hope to prepare and preserve their foods.

With greater outreach, she hopes to have more food options available to people in her area. “If we are able to train … more farmers in the area, then that means we can increase our production,” Scarbrough said.

Scarbrough’s reputation has spread throughout the nation. Just last spring, Will Allen of nationally recognized Growing Power Inc., a crusader for the modern garden movement, travelled down to Shelby with a semi full of volunteers. They hosted a gardening workshop at Scarbrough’s headquarters and invited the entire community. People learned how to compost, build greenhouses and start their own gardens.

Scarbrough doesn’t just preach. She fights for her community and she hopes that her efforts will carry on. “Knowing that fresh produce is on the table … will make them want to be a healthier person and will make people want to continue. We like to remind customers that they are what they eat,” Scarbrough said.

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The ‘Temple of the Living God’

Nate Rosenberg doesn’t look like a Delta gardener.

On this day, he looks smart and casual with his blue oxford shirt and dark-wash jeans that are not out of character for the streets of Clarksdale.

It is not until he opens his mouth and you hear the distinct tinge in his voice of a northern academic that you realize this is the Harvard Law School-educated Delta research fellow. Rosenberg has a passion for food policy and he has brought that fire with him to the fight for fresh food in the Delta.

In any given week, Rosenberg wears many hats. One day he may help a church find resources to help start a church garden. On another day, he could be researching the latest trend in federal food policy or be working with his colleagues to draft a proposal to present to the Mississippi Legislature. “That’s a niche we can fill. We can look up the laws,” he said.

“Sometimes the regulations are a barrier, and sometimes not knowing the regulations can be more of a barrier.”

He is helping people like Ryan Betz and Dorothy Scarbrough bring farm fresh vegetables to every single school cafeteria in the Delta. In the past seven to eight years, he has seen a definite growth in similar programs and is excited for the potential for growth.

“Once people started learning that it was legal and that not only was it legal but that the state encouraged it, (farm to school programs) started growing quickly,” said Rosenberg.

Will Allen, a national crusader for the modern garden movement, briefs his volunteers on how to create greenhouse gardens.
Will Allen, a national crusader for the modern garden movement, briefs his volunteers on how to create greenhouse gardens.

The farm-to- school movement benefits students and farmers by providing fresher fruits and vegetables while also giving farmers a larger, more stable market for their produce. The larger market for produce helps farmers make more money and reduces risk. “Growing food for local markets … is a great source of potential wealth for the region,” he said.

Rosenberg admits that the market still needs to grow, but predicts that it will eventually take off. “It is growing and people are interested, but these things take time. Businesses have to be started, growers have to transition to new crops and become comfortable with that, people have to learn new skills … This is all a good thing, but that takes time,” he said.

Meanwhile, at Samuel Chapel United Methodist, they are hurrying as fast as they can. Mayor Collins, who judges that 80 percent of local residents have diabetes, did her part
by giving up white bread for Lent. “My body is screaming, ‘Jesus, Jesus, help me,” she said.

You can watch the battle rage all over town. The church gleans leftover corn from farmers’ fields and distributes it to local residents, bans fried food from church suppers, sponsors fishing rodeos, walks, exercise classes, canning classes.

Members help with a garden for the elementary school where the kids plant seeds, watch them grow, then eat their homegrown produce in the cafeteria. The town got a grant to help place a playground at a local school that was built without one. Anything for the cause.

And pastor Maxine Bolden delivers a “healthy living sermon” every once in a while. “Your body,” she reminds the faithful, “is the temple of the living God.”

And just to make sure everyone understands the stakes: “We are only helpful to the Kingdom as we are able to endure.”

By Phillip Waller, The Land of Plent: Will Food Save the Delta or Be its Death?, Meek School of Journalism and New Media, Spring 2013

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